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Bob in NW Spain--a trip report

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NAVIGATING IN NW SPAIN—2008—A TRIP REPORT
By BOB THE NAVIGATOR:

OVERVIEW:
It was our 24th trip to Europe and my 5th to Spain. Spain is such a large and diverse country it takes that long to see it well. We decided to devote 15 days to the NW quadrant of Spain and include one of our favorite haunts from a previous trip to Portugal as well. It turned out to be 6 destinations in the 15 nights, including two nights each in Segovia and Salamanca at the beginning and end of the trip to facilitate arrival/departure from Madrid.

• Segovia---Hotel Infanta Isabel
• Cangas de Onis—Parador, as gateway to Picos de Europa
• Ribadeo---Parador—transitional to Rias Atlas coastal drive
• Santiago do Compostela---Los Abetos hotel
• Viana do Castelo, Portugal---Pousada Monte de Santa Luzia
• Salamanca---Hotel Palacio de Castellanos

We rented the car from Autoeurope and kept it the entire trip. I think the Avis guy felt sorry for this older couple in the rain and upgraded us to a shiny new BMW 320D, which proved to be one of the pleasures of the trip.

The air connections were almost free by using points from two different programs. Susan got a direct flight from Atlanta to Madrid using Delta points, but Bob had to fly from RDU to Dulles to Munich and then back to Madrid using Star Alliance points on Lufthansa. I hate a two connection itinerary, but in this case the price was right. We arrived in Madrid within 2 hours of each other and had no real flight issues in both directions other than I hate to be treated like a sardine—it gets worse as I get older.

You may be curious about the cost of this trip---I know I was. For many years of European travel I would budget $150/day for room, food, and tourism. This trip was almost exactly double that cost. Here is a summary:

• Hotel/Parador cost per day=$180
• Food costs—including wine=$ 90
• Tourism costs—tours etc =$ 20
• Coffee/coke stop twice daily=$ 10 Total per day cost $ 300

That is $4500 for 15 days plus the cost of the rental car and gas and tolls. The transport cost added up to almost $1100 with the high gas costs. So, for a 15 day trip to parts of Spain and Portugal, that are certainly not among the more expensive destinations in Western Europe, this trip cost us about $5700 with free air travel. With air, this trip would have cost almost $8000.



TRIP HIGHLIGHTS:

I will not bore you with a daily journal of our wanderings. However, I will qualify my comments by noting that much of what we did was determined by the weather. I had read that “ Green Spain” got the name honestly, but May did not seem to be the highest risk of rain. We had rain about 70% of the time and really only had 5 days that were not gray and overcast. That affected some of our travel options and certainly put a damper on my photography agenda. However, we did manage to enjoy these highlights:

• Segovia is always a great destination. It was my 2nd trip but the first for Susan. She enjoyed the historical aspects and the Alcazar.

• We had 2 highlights in Asturias. We enjoyed a lovely day with some blue skies as we drove to Potes in the Picos de Europa. We hit Potes on market day and it was bustling. We liked Potes and the local culture of this mountain community. Another day in Asturias we started with the local market in nearby Cangas de Onis and then drove to Ribadesella on the coast to visit the caves of Tito Bustillo with amazing prehistoric wall paintings.


• I wish I could tell you some highlights in Galicia but the rain was persistent and kept us from enjoying the two days we had planned to enjoy coastal fishing villages and beaches from Cudillero and Luarca to the villages of the Rias Atlas in Galicia. I had always wanted to visit this corner of Spain since my days in the Air Force when I viewed it from 40,000 feet on a radar scope from a B-52 bomber as we flew a 24 hour airborne alert mission. Of course, I was the navigator---what else? But, that was all 45 years ago.

• I am sure we did not do justice to Santiago do Compostela, with the rain being a major deterrent. We did enjoy a day trip to Muros on the coast west of Santiago. Again, we got lucky and happened to arrive on market day. The sun was out, finally. Later that day we drove up to A Coruna to have lunch. Susan wanted to see the notable glass balconies in the houses facing the harbor.

• We stopped for coffee in lovely Baiona at the Parador built into the ancient fortress in this historic coastal village. Our destination was Viana do Castelo in northern Portugal—a place we had enjoyed 12 years ago. This may have been my favorite destination of the trip. The weather was improving, and our Pousada room on the cliff overlooking the town and the Basilica of Santa Luzia was to die for[see photo gallery]. It was Saturday in Viana and we arrived in time to see local folk dancers in the town square. That night, we were directed to a most enjoyable program at the local museum featuring “salon dancing” and local costumes. The program took place after we had a lovely seafood dinner at a local restaurant that proved to be the best find of the trip. The next day was Sunday and we drove to the village of Ponte de Lima that we had visited on the previous trip. A group of locals were all in native dress and selling food items in the town square. We like this village for its architecture and authentic Portuguese ambiance.

• Our final destination was a 5 hour drive across Portugal and Western Spain to lovely Salamanca. We did stop for lunch in the medieval walled city of Ciudad Rodrigo. Salamanca is a famous University town and one of my favorite places in Spain. I have said before that my favorite places in Spain all began with “S” and Salamanca is one of those. The others are Segovia, Sevilla, and San Sebastian. I had hoped to add Santiago to that list, but the rains dampened my enthusiasm. Ironically, our grandson will be in Salamanca for the month of July in a program to learn Spanish. He had done a similar program in Tarifa last year and loved it. You have to love Salamanca. The whole city has a golden glow to it. The Plaza Mayor is the best in Spain, and I love the evening stroll on Rua Mayor by the locals---with most walking arm in arm. We did stop in Avila as we drove to Madrid to enjoy this UNESCO site with the best preserved medieval walls in all of Spain.


RECOMMENDATIONS:

I have never been a big fan of the cuisine in this part of Europe---I guess we are spoiled by our Italy travels. However, here are 3 places we did enjoy that we can recommend:

• Jose Maria-----Segovia, near Plaza Mayor [gracias Maribel]
• Café Elise---Santiago, on Rua Franco walking to the Cathedral
• O Pescador Restaurant---Viana do Castelo—good seafood & value

The accommodations we most enjoyed included these:

• The Parador at Cangas de Onis---good 4 star facilities
• Los Abetos Hotel in Santiago---this is a modern business style hotel just off of A-9 with shuttle service into Santiago all day. It proved to be a good choice with a car to avoid the city turmoil and parking.
• Pousada Monte Santa Luzia in Viana do Castello. It was closed for renovation our last trip---we loved the views over the city.

I would be remiss not to also mention the Infanta Isabel Hotel in Segovia for its location and old world charm. I have stayed there twice and it is the best location in that city. Be sure to get a room facing the Plaza Mayor—we had #206 and it was double the size of most European 3 star hotel rooms.

SUMMARY:

Both Spain and Portugal are tourist friendly destinations with excellent roads and typically good signage. We did notice a major difference in northern Portugal since our last trip---no doubt a result of the EU money that has been spread around the lesser developed member nations. The network of both Paradors in Spain and Pousadas in Portugal are excellent options for good accommodations. The trick is to schedule yourself when they offer discounts for seniors [ Golden Age promotion] when prices are reduced by 40%. See the respective web sites to see the matrix of when discounts are available by location [ www.parador.es] There is a also a 5 night promotion.

This trip was our typical format that we have enjoyed over the past 24 years.
We have enjoyed traveling by car and seeking out off-the-path destinations in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, France and Austria. One trip lasted 8 weeks and included virtually all of the above plus Prague. Our favorite remote “discoveries” have included Orta San Giulio, Portovenere, Spello, Montalcino, Noto, Cesky Krumlov, St. Gilgen, Nerja, Menton, and Kandestag.
However, this trip may have marked the end of that style of travel for us. We will continue to travel in Europe, hopefully each year, but will probably do less driving and spending more time in one location. My “slowtrav” friends will now applaud. Prices are higher, the dollar is weaker, and we are not getting any younger. European travel is still one of my passions, but it may be a bit slower for us in the future.

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